You fiercely resisted any name for what you were. Dark then blond. Man then woman. Lover and friend. Reprobate and respectable. So hard to fix your place! You whored on the side to keep a roof over our heads, relieved muddled sailors of their pocketwatches and wages as they pissed themselves in the alleys, said your prayers at La Cathédrale de Saint Louis even as you stole from the collection plate. For every man you killed or maimed, you added a bead to your necklace. Your necklace was nearly thirty feet long, and longer still it might have been, but you counted only the white men for victims and not your own race.
Yours was a lively life, if one believed a single word that passed through your lips—bits of hideous legend, libraries without end, blinding riches, catamite service among ancient leaders of a strange cult, fleshrites, mythic beasts, and marvelous escapes. All nonsense, of course, yet to pass the time as we hid from the mobs, the stories were almost as welcome as blanket sport.
Me, I was also no prize or purebred. I’m but a half-man, a bumboy and a mustard pot, shaman and seanachie, Irish but in America, skilled neither at keeping chaste nor keeping a secret, the red-haired pale-as-a-radish bastard to whom the Faeries had freely given every gift imaginable but the talent for making proper use of any of them. No wonder I frequently screwed up.
The night of your fateful encounter with the knife, you stumbled through the door of the room we let in La Manche Irlandaise, the New Orleans neighborhood where beautyboys and wagtails and strong women and Irish saints and racial amalgamators and child-thieves could live with minimal molestation from Freedom Agents and Know Nothing mobs and that sort of melancholy knave who couldn’t pass you on the road but must ram a bit of scripture down your throat.
You removed dress, heels, and paint and were again by all appearances a man, if a pretty one—twice my weight and height, wide almond eyes, nose like a ship’s prow, a hoop earring, copper skin, and the words I regret this already tattooed between shoulder your blades. I placed your wig on a papier-mâché head, which, like the Baptist’s, I carried away on a plate.
Though it was past midnight, you said you’d been neither whoring nor stealing nor fighting. Rather, you’d pressed your nose to the glass at Provençals, the milliner’s shop. You’d mentally slipped into each of the dresses and nankeen gloves on display. You’d inserted yourself into imaginary parties of romantic Creole gentilhommes. Once home, you dreamed sweetly of le bal cordon bleu.
I counted your every breath. At each, my whetstone grated over the knife’s edge as a bow rides a fiddle’s strings.
When the mantel clock at last struck three, the knife jabbed you and drew blood.
You leaped to your feet.
The knife jabbed again and again until there was a jig in you, a comely dance, as if you were born as Irish as I.
I accused you of every disloyalty.
You denied everything. You denied the increasing preoccupation with dresses and pomades and brats and balls and respectability. You denied you were bored of me. You denied you cared no longer for the sport with Zozo LaBrique and the other beautyboys of our regular erotic acquaintance.
You denied the sessions before the looking glass in which—having learned the technique from books of self-improvement like The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility—you told yourself, “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”
When you saw your denials availed you nothing against the knife’s hard edge, you instead pleaded mercy.
Had it been but me, my stubborn Irish sentimentality may have caused me to forgive your abandoning me just when the Know Nothings were most intent on destroying us. I might have let you take me in your broad embrace. Certainly, this was what I wanted most in the world.
But a knife is always exactly what it is. Its blade is clear about its business from the time of its manufacture to the moment of its use, which is more than most of us can say about ourselves. Even as the knife slits a man’s throat, he can’t claim betrayal or surprise. Throat slitting is precisely the behavior one would expect of a knife. Thus, mercy isn’t a knife’s to give, and you begged to be allowed to draw on your red wig before being murdered, so you could die as the woman you truly were at heart.
Don’t say I failed in my duty to you. I laid out your corpse on a cooling board with feet pointed toward the door. I fit a white dress to your body and matched it with white silk stockings and a new pair of white heels. I threaded a white-beaded rosary through your long fingers. On your eyes I placed picayunes to pay your passage to the Other World, where you would look down on the Know Nothings in the everlasting fire.
When my ministrations had finished, and you appeared to be as beautiful a lady as you had ever aspired to be (like a doll, lacking only life), I had new time to ponder what had passed.
I cursed my knife for its delicious felicity and swore never again to conspire with it, so help me God. I jammed the blade deep into the doorframe so hard that the handle thrummed like a tuning fork. Even with two feet braced against the wall, I couldn’t again yank it out.
Turning to the cooling board, I desperately wished to be the white sheet on top of you. I wanted to be the board beneath your buttocks and the picayunes upon your lids.
“You love me,” I crooned in your ear. “As much as two pints of beer. As much as a lamp needs its wick. As much as the best bonnet from Provençals.
“Why,” I asked over and over, “did you therefore make me do this? It was all your fault.”
Everyone knows it’s bad luck to count the guests at a funeral, but in the morning, many that loved you nearly as well as I arrived at our door in La Manche Irlandaise: the little thief America and her Creole boyfriend L’Enfant, who was known to take the place of the baby Jesus in the manger of a Christmas crèche and steal out at night to rob the friars; La Sans Regret, Saint Brigid Fury, and the other Irish wagtails from Madame Damnable’s bawdyhouse; and Zozo La Brique, the Jesuit Père Bonseigneur, and all the other familiar beautyboys.
The mourners knelt at your deathbed, and if one of them did steal the coins from your eyes, still they said kind things about you, which is all a woman can reasonably ask. After praising the whiteness of your dress and stockings and heels and the copper tone of your fine face, they regretted that you’d never stand behind the counter of your own millinery or raise your brats or gossip like a proper lady and study your self-improvement books until your curtsy was but a brisk whisper.
“That was never for our kind,” they agreed with one another. “The normal life.”
“Too many knives,” I suggested, but our guests only glared at me and beat me about the head.
The procession accompanying your body marched straight up Washington Avenue, and when we reached the newly erected wall that encircled La Manche Irlandaise, the Freedom Agents let us pass unmolested. Such was the respect for a funeral in New Orleans!
Dirges were sung. Heaven wept. Frogs croaked. That hot breath of God they call the Whore’s Sigh stirred the live oaks and hanging mosses.
Among the whited sepulchers of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 were clumps of stained and moldy winding sheets. All the mourning party delicately avoided the mud by stepping on used slabs with faded inscriptions that had been laid underfoot. The wagtails’ magnificent heels miraculously suffered no speck of dust, but gave off sparks each time they encountered granite.
Before we consigned you to the crypt, the wagtails spoke at length, and—despite their sometimes bitter competition with you for the highest-paying punters—particularly praised your every part: tongue, cheeks, eyes, nose, privates, and fine tattoos.
Entrusted with a dollar, Père Bonseigneur put a blessing on the coffin. La Sans Regret had to be pried from the box lid, on which she had sobbed and beaten for almost an hour, so Saint Brigid Fury could punch holes in it to keep the coffin from floating away during the next flood.
Many dozen spirits also paid their respects. Irish canalmen fallen where their labor had killed them. Slaves whipped to death. Syphilitic wagtails. Children young as the little thief America crushed by rushing drays. An Irishman waylaid at the polls by Freedom Agents as he tried to exercise his franchise.
Some of the spirits smothered the mourners in cold kisses. Some gnashed teeth and wrung hands. Others were grasping and full of curses. But each was grateful for witness. I saw them when no one else did, and they drew toward me as the bear to honey, with that irritating expression of surprise at discovering themselves without life, which was so characteristic of the dead in my personal experience.
You, too, slipped from your coffin to haunt me.
I wanted you to say, “I don’t blame you, Irish seanachie.”
I wanted you to acknowledge the nature of knives.
I wanted you to admit to the extremity of our Know Nothing persecution, which demanded we all stick together and put aside a trifling murder.
I wanted you to say, “You were no more than the knife’s porter. You couldn’t let it go any more easily than you could let go of me.”
Instead, as if you’d have extracted the tongue from me and at once, your spirit administered a hard, openmouthed kiss and hung a curse on me as heavy as my cloak.
“You’re no different than every Irishman,” your spirit murmured. “In you always was such fierceness and bad judgment! Such thirst for persecuting and being felt persecuted! Maybe the Know Nothings are exactly right. the Irish are indeed a people that only ill luck favors, with an unerring instinct for finding the worst in one another. No wonder you Irish so took to New Orleans. You long for the swamp. It’s only your nature.”
You vanished, but the fruit of your curse was swift. The funeral party wasn’t halfway back to the safety of La Manche Irlandaise, when, as if you’d summoned them—and you had—a hundred righteous Know Nothing thugs blocked our way at Camp Street. To them, we were no longer a funeral party, but a riot, and the Freedom Agents looked away.
Like men, mobs act always according to their nature. A mob breathes and swells and ripples and seethes and cools with its own logic and momentum. Resistance is futile. Joining is sometimes an escape, but there is no joining when you are the mob’s object, no more than when you are at a blade’s tip.
With clenched fists, the Know Nothings banged at the sky. They carried torches and placards and clubs and had wrapped kerchiefs around their noses and mouths to hide their identities. There was no talking sense into them, nor arguing that the lot of us were but poor men like themselves and from potato famine come, and no more in favor of Pope-voting or priest-raping than a single Know Nothing ever had been, but only trying to make our way in the world according to our natures. If some among us were murderers or whores or half-men, it wasn’t the Know Nothings that suffered from it.
Hearing no plea, Know Nothing brats dug up paving stones with their bare hands, and the stones gave way from the mud with a thick and satisfying thwock. Know Nothing females held poorly spelled signs reading, Down with Hibernophilia.
Recognizing our predicament, and no more questioning why my curse should signal their demise as well, La Sans Regret and Saint Brigid Fury folded their parasols, which had savage points. Zozo bared his file-sharp teeth. Pere Bonseigneur brandished the crucifix around his neck as a club.
The scrum began with a pop and a bang and a scream. A wagtail fell. A Know Nothing driving a dray ploughed into the funeral party and turned the half of us upside-down.
Sticks whistled in the air. Bullets flew. Fists pummeled. There were bonecrunches and brainspatters and socketpops. Some women among us were disemboweled, and—having first satisfied the needs of Know Nothing males—shuddered their final breath, while others, torch-burned, screamed for someone to kill them.
La Sans Regret? She didn’t fare well. Once they disarmed her of her parasol, the Know Nothings cut off her beautiful nose with a knife as sharp as I’d used on you, so no punter would ever want to whore with her again. The little thief America screamed for help, but the merciless Know Nothings lopped off her pretty head and, where it fell, it continued to shout the alarum. Zozo’s sharp teeth were hammered out one by one with a mallet.
Don’t blame me. I was lucky or blessed or perhaps just white. Mobs have a thousand eyes but don’t see straight, ten thousand fingers, yet unable to grasp what slips through. I crawled out from the melee and—for the first time since encountering the Know Nothings—distinguished myself from the mob, felt the clench of my own fists, the torn fingernails, the swollen eye. My own voice I again heard and what had seemed like another’s shouting was in fact my own.
I was calling, “Justice! Justice!”
I was calling, “Freedom! Freedom!”
Scott Pomfret is author of Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir; Hot Sauce: A Novel; the Q Guide to Wine and Cocktails, and dozens of short stories published in, among other venues, Ecotone, Post Road, New Orleans Review, Fiction International, and Fourteen Hills. Scott writes from his tiny Boston apartment and even tinier Provincetown beach shack, which he shares with his partner of nineteen years. He is currently at work on a Know-Nothing novel set in antebellum New Orleans.